‘If we don’t speak out, sin multiplies’

GETTY IMAGES People walk by a controversial ad, which has already been defaced, that condemns radical Islam in a New … Continued


People walk by a controversial ad, which has already been defaced, that condemns radical Islam in a New York subway station on Sept. 27, 2012 in New York City.

As Jews across the globe were wrapping up this year’s High Holy Day season last month, many New Yorkers, and now many Washingtonians too, walked out of the synagogue and into the subway on their way home. There, they were assaulted with what I’ve come to think of as blogger Pamela Geller’s subway speech, which comes in the form of ads from the virulently anti-Islam group she heads up, the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

Crudely juxtaposing the star of David and support for Israel, with a war on savages, or those who support jihad (which in Geller’s mind includes all Muslims), Geller’s words perpetrate their own acrostic of wrongs including bigotry, hate, and ignorance; they are divisive, misleading, and xenophobic. These words belong underground because they are way beneath us as Jews and as human beings. They do not speak for the Jewish community, and we, and our elected officials, must protest them.

As we know, at first, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rejected the ads, but a district judge ruled the ads were protected under the First Amendment. A federal judge ordered the D.C. Metro to post them and the ads started running last week.

These are important decisions. As an American, I insist on the right to free speech, even when I deplore the message. As a rabbi, I insist on the responsibility to speak out against hateful speech, particularly when it comes at least in part from one of our own. Judaism teaches anyone who has the ability to intervene but does not is held responsible [by God] for those sins because they had the ability to intervene against them.

But we don’t counter evil speech with good speech just so we won’t bear sin. We do so in the name of all we hold true and good. We do so because we care about the targets of the evil speech, because we want to heal hurts, restore wounded reputations in this case both ours, and that of our Muslim friends. We want to restore relationships and righteousness too.

If we don’t speak out, sin multiplies. We only have to look at the news of the past several months in Oak Creek, Wis., and Joplin, Mo., to see how unchecked messages of hatred lead to acts of violence. Yet, when we do speak out against sinful speech, good things multiply. An example from my own experience: Georgetown’s Jewish student groups have joined other protesters in D.C. in disseminating the Rabbis for Human Rights-North America Choose Love posters, which have run in New York City subways and will be running in D.C. in the weeks ahead. The outpouring of gratitude and goodwill from the Muslim student community has been tremendous and profound. Bridges are being built where a deep rift might have taken hold. Students from both communities are refusing to let the bigotry of the few obliterate the mutual respect and friendship so many have taken such care to cultivate for so long.

In the global era of social media, healing encounters like these can and do have a positive impact both locally and globally. News of the Rabbis posters is being tweeted around the world.

To my great pride and deep satisfaction, the Jewish community has taken up the responsibility for good speech in large numbers and with a great energy. Our elected officials should follow suit. Freedom of speech does not absolve our elected officials from denouncing hateful rhetoric. Rather, it compels them to do so.

A key part of our officials’ jobs is to uphold core American values of pluralism and inclusion. Unfortunately, New York City’s public officials have largely been silent about the message of hate written on their subway walls. Let’s not see the same shameful silence here in Washington. Because as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible. If we are silent when speech is clearly called for, we too bear some responsibility for whatever ensues.

Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the rabbi and director of Jewish chaplaincy at Georgetown University. She is a co-author of the Moving Traditions’Rosh Hodesh: Its A Girl Thing Sourcebook” and serves on the board of the Reconstructonist Rabbinical Association.


Rabbi Rachel Gartner Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the Director of Jewish Life at Georgetown University. She is a co-author of "Rosh Hodesh: It's A Girl Thing," and she sits on the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
  • WmarkW

    ‘If we don’t speak out, sin multiplies’

    Yep, and that’s exactly why Geller is doing it.

  • Kingofkings1

    Sometimes evil exists just to give the people a chance to do good

  • Jennie Kiffmeyer

    Rachel, you model for us a middle way between protecting free speech and embracing the responsibility to respond thoughtfully and with compassion. I also appreciate your lifting up the work done by Jewish and Muslim college students who reject manipulative hate-speech and imagery in order to build relationships that make possible honest dialogue and eventually friendship. Thank you for speaking out.

  • Zeina Seikaly

    Thank you Rabbi Rachel Gartner for your very wise words.

  • Josetta Owen

    Thank you, Rabbi Gartner, for your courageous words of peace and compassion. May your message go far and wide and may they be embraced by all human hearts.


    So, the rabbi has invented a new sin. “Thou shalt not speak unkindly of thy neighbours”, which has quickly been modified by the christians to read “Thou shalt not speak unkindly of thy neighbours UNLESS IT SUITS THY PURPOSES.”

    But where’s the line? If I write something about how I find orthodox judaism’s treatment of women to be barbaric, is that hate speech? Is it anti-semitic? I know I’ve already been accused of anti-Semitism for suggesting that circumcision be postponed until the person being circumcised is able to give his informed consent.

    Is referring to christianity’s well-known problems with women as the christian “War on Women” anti-christian? I don’t think so. But the rabbi would probably accuse me of hate speech if I made subway ads up stating that opinion.

  • esthermiriam

    Thank you.

    If the antidote to hate speech is more loving, thoughtful speech, not enough local folks are speaking up against the Geller ads, which betray the meaning of what it means to support Israel and attempt to implicate the Jewish community in her Islamiphobic views.

    It would also be nice to hear from Mayor and Council about standards for civility in the nation’s capital and our home.

  • edbyronadams

    The Rabbi has a point. The antidote to any disagreeable speech is more speech. However, when any pictorial representation of Muhammad is occasion for credible death threats, we have a communication problem.

  • shilotoren

    Wonder where Ms. Gartner was when ads calling for boycotting Israel were being plastered over subways. Probably didn’t think slandering Israel was hate speech . Is that reconstructing the truth, or is it just reforming it.

  • dcrswm

    Why not simply not support either? If I don’t like terrorism that means I have to support Israel (no irony there)?

  • leibowde84

    The ad does not attack Muslims … it attacks Jihad. And it is very obvious that it refers to the most recognized meaning of the word, referring to a holy war against unbelievers. So, what is the problem? Those who practice this type of Jihad are savages. How is that wrong?

  • leibowde84

    I don’t remember and Israelis murdering any 14-year old girls in cold blood simply because they wanted to get an education. Now that is savage.

  • dcrswm

    So ever muslim is a terrorist?

  • dcrswm

    You say “cult ideology called islam” like catholicism isn’t a cult, like christianity isn’t a cult, like judaism isn’t a cult. End of the day, they are all bronze age myths with zero evidence to back their validity.

  • dcrswm

    I also don’t see any palesitians bulldozing entire neighborhoods to build high rises because no one will stop them.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.